Three women. Three women, sent reeling by one disease — well, three, really. But one whose name is still bitter in my mouth, whose name I still haven’t forgiven, whose name is a tangled string of foreign letters that spells out scary, spells out despair, spells out death, death to women I once knew.
Three women, two who lost themselves to demons inside their brains after one almost lost herself to attackers born and bred in her kidney and lungs, hacking at her immune system with such ferocity and malicious intent that in hindsight, she should have gone in to the doctor to check her persistent runny nose and cough. But try telling the wife and mother, the daughter of a rapidly-aging widow, the judge of a small-town court, the golfer and hiker and skier and socialite, to schedule a doctor’s appointment for a cold. Fat chance, worrywart. Pop a Dayquil and stuff a Kleenex down the sleeve of your judge’s robe and tough it out.
She couldn’t tough it out, though, when her husband found her coughing up blood in the middle of the night after a month (a month!) of fighting it. He drove as fast as he could to the hospital, the stoplights a blur as he stared at her fluttering eyelids, his wife shuddering on the seat next to him, a wife as reliable and strong as the oak trees lining the street of their first house together, the white house downtown where they kissed over creaking wooden floors as their children spied and giggled from tiny twin beds. But that house was sold for something newer, text messages and shouts down the stairs replaced kisses as people grew older and familiarity created worn ruts where love was taken for granted, love that should have been nurtured but was set aside in place of hurried goodbyes and early goodnights.
There was a time when Dad was sick, too, the sodium of over-salted entrees and sugar from nightly ice cream spoonfuls building up a wall in his heart that wouldn’t let the blood through. We visited him in the hospital the day after his surgery, the day where we learned he had a “stint,” a foreign word, a sick word, a dirty word. We watched the monitors beep and the TV whine and then we watched him get up and wash his face with Dove soap, as he had done every other day at home in his bleach-white undies, and things felt normal again. But he recovered, and we all got worse.
I don’t know if I’ll be okay, she thought, her eyelids heavy as iron as she tried to push them open, as the doctors took her blood and her pulse and tried to give her back her life, as the pastor and friends and family loomed over her, praying that she would just open her eyes, please, we know you’re in there, please, we want you back.
I don’t know if she’ll be okay, he said, signing forms and answering questions and running sweaty palms through his thinning hair, trying to keep out the onslaught of small-town newspaper reporters and the tidal wave of calls and casseroles, telling himself that she’s only sleeping, only sleeping, she’ll be up soon.
I don’t know if she’ll be okay, I said, choking on tears in the arms of strangers underneath the fluorescent lights of an on-campus office, running out of class because I couldn’t talk about the dying patient in a fictional text without seeing my mom in every line, closing my eyes in the arms of the office attendant and trying to imagine they were the arms of somebody I loved over five hours away.
We don’t know if she’ll be okay, the doctors said. Let’s wait and see.
I’m okay, she said.
I heard the shell of her voice on the other end of the line, heard my dad whoop with joy, heard the shuffle from within the hospital room of nurses carting pieces of her in and out, and we wailed together, a hoarse rally cry. I watched tears run down my nose and drop on my cellphone. I heard the wails echoing through a cinder-block dorm room. I imagined tears traveling over telephone wires and onto my mother’s open ears, her cheeks and eyes. I saw her in front of me, smelled her shampoo and perfume and felt her cool fingertips on my arms, saw her alive as ever. I hung up first, her fingers too weak to push the button. I laid on my scratchy twin mattress and closed my eyes and slept harder than I had in weeks. Exhaustion hit, and this time, I was the one who couldn’t keep my eyes open.
It’s amazing, the doctors said. We’ve never seen someone recover this fast before.
It was an alien, Grandma said, as her vision flickered and spit flecks gathered in the corners of her coral lips. She pounded too hard on my shoulder and I pulled back too hard from her long-nailed grasp. The stress of almost having lost a child caused some kind of chemical reaction deep in the neural pathways beneath her wrinkled skin, and she had a stroke. Not the normal kind of mouth-drooping paralysis that we’re used to — no, this was something else. Hers was a different kind of sickness. This was a sickness in her brain, in her eyes, in her head, one that didn’t seem real. Her sickness was caused by her daughter’s.
“They’re watching me,” she said.
“The guys in my apartment,” she replied. There were spies constantly watching her, she said, guys wanting to kill her.
But she wouldn’t give an answer, wouldn’t tell us, couldn’t tell us why. Her fear had fogged her brain, like a steamy mirror after a long shower. The answer was there, but we had to wait for it to cool off.
She didn’t want to leave her apartment. She knew her neighbor had a gun. She watched him watch her; he tried to shoot her in the night; she was quick, and he missed. The police were parked by her, watching her, making sure she was okay. She took me to her car, the one that was just like mine, and showed me the blinking security light on the dash.
“This is how they’re keeping track of me.”
I got into my own car and locked the doors and watched the same light flash, and I cried.
I was just tired, I said. I wasn’t sleeping enough, I said, when I’d yawn in the middle of a lecture and accidentally catch someone’s eye and look away, ashamed of the circles underneath my eyes. Circles that had emerged after seeing Mom grow sick; circles that had grown deeper and darker watching Grandma get sick, too. The truth was, I was sleeping more than ever. It had been a year since the phone call, a month since I had come back to school from a whole summer with her. A summer of sitting by her, feeling her thin hair where patches were coming back, driving her to “dialysis”, another dirty word that meant the doctors were circulating her dirty blood out of her body, cleaning it, and putting it back inside her, since her kidneys were too weak to do so on their own. A summer of normal days and dark, dark nights — after Mom and Dad had gone to bed, I’d creep up the stairs, careful not to rustle my keys or jacket, and drive away from the house without headlights on to a friend’s dimly lit basement. I’d drink too much wine and stay up much, much too late, trying to sober up before puttering back down gravel roads home, stumbling into bed just as the sun began to rise. I tried to drown out the scariness of sitting awake in that sleeping house, afraid that she wouldn’t wake up the next morning, even though the doctors had said that she would be fine.
And she was, and she was up every morning. I’d listen from within my cocoon of blankets to her putzing around above my bed, making coffee and telephone calls, until the dull thuds of her slippers were replaced by click-clacking heels and tendrils of flowery perfume dancing long after she’d slam the door. I’d roll over when she’d get up, listening to her low-toned groggy conversations with Grandma on the phone, willing myself to get up, get out of bed, go sit and sip and chat and laugh. But in the mornings, love was sacrificed for bed, and by the time I had emerged, she had already gone.
Now I was gone, back to where I was when it all began, and all of those late nights had caught up to me, and all I could do was sleep. Sleep, because it was easier than facing those same classrooms I had cried in once before; sleep, because I didn’t know I wasn’t over it; sleep, because waking up and remembering that sweet feeling of her being there, even when I was hundreds of miles away, was sweeter each time it happened. Sleep, because depression manifests itself in strange and familiar ways and preys on those who least deserve it.
It was all I could do to keep my eyes open throughout a fifty-minute class. I’d storm home from class and flop on the floor, eyes tracing the patterns of the worn carpet, barely remembering to set an alarm before the world went black. I’d jump, shaking, when the electronic melody would go off, and throwing on my sweats, I’d head back to campus to sit through another class. Class, sleep, class, repeat.
That November, we sat around on leather couches and talked about the weather. Grandma leaned too close to Dad, her eyes bright blurry blue and her long-nailed fingers grasping at his shoulder, but gently, gently. Her stomach held new pills to placate; her shaking hand held white wine and ice. Dad helped her set her glass down, gently, gently, next to his half-eaten plate of salad and roasted potatoes — no salt. Mom leaned against the back of the couch, her neck still puffy with steroids. She nibbled on turkey and smiled when Grandma talked about her friends on the bus, her friends next door. I rested my cheek against Mom’s shoulder, gently, gently, smelling her chemical hospital soap mixed with her perfume and feeling my throat grow tight. We had sat for hours that morning on the couch in the house that didn’t have the same creaking wood floors and oaks, the house that sometimes felt as sterile as the hospital room she used to lay in, the house that, for today, felt warm. We laughed at daytime television and leafed through newspaper advertisements, sipping coffee as sunshine bounced off diamonds hidden in the rows of snow on the trees outside the window.
She still goes to the doctor to check in, and she still hides in her apartment on the bad days, and she still stays in bed for too long, but she’s doing better now.
There was a before, and an after, and we are in the after. Grandmother, mother, daughter. Three generations of women, each hit by a virus, each suffering inside, each feeling the weight of the others, each looking for help but not knowing how to get it, each finding strength in time, strength in seeing the others heal.